The immediate image associated with democracy in Africa is of men dressed in tatters, pleading to remain alive. The state of power and powerlessness on the African continent tends to make leaders accountable only to themselves rather than to the fictitious 99 percent who voted them into power.
There is trouble in Togo, turmoil in Zaire, subdued turmoil in Malawi, and pretentious democracy in Zimbabwe. The central issue is accountability. This I perceive at a different level from the accountability of John Major or George Bush or some of those so-called democracies in the countries of the West.
Large percentages of African populations are illiterate in any language. But our countries conduct their official business in English, which is supposed to “unite” the people. The absurdity of uniting people in a language, which the large majority cannot read, is incomprehensible.
Absurdity? Yes. Bizarre moments of the politically absurd face us every day. The other day, a senior minister in the Zimbabwean government tried his bit of accountability. He went out into the rural areas to address the peasants. The occasion was the installation of a chief in the western province.
The honourable minister read his speech in impeccable English to an audience of voters for whom he cared nothing except as voters at the appropriate time. What matters are the television cameras and the image of the minister on the glossy screens of power portrayals.
The use of languages which African leaders know that the people do not speak is in itself a denial of the people’s participation in their affairs. And our politicians cannot dare contemplate conducting the nation’s business in a language which allows the people to participate.
The other day, I suggested to a Minister of Finance that it might be worth while to have his annual budget speech translated and presented in Parliament in the two national languages of the country. He was quick to comment on my “madness.” But was it “sane” for him to present a national budget which would be understood by a mere five percent of the population?
African leaders do not dare embark too seriously on dynamic literacy programmers; a reading nation runs the risk of thinking about national affairs. To read is to infringe on the territory of the rulers, whose monopoly of wisdom must not be disputed. As a result, the burden of illiteracy will remain with the African continent for many years to come. Another denial of the people’s participation.
When people cannot understand what their leaders say, they are daily subjected to pitiful forms of popular participation. In their deafness, they are dragged to Harare International Airport to dance when President Robert Mugabe arrives from a trip with gains to the country of which the people are totally unaware. They are invited to cheer and shout in conference halls in which the President might be saying some of the most undemocratic things a President could ever say to an electorate.
“Power is like a desolating pestilence” someone wrote. This reminds me of Malawi, another monster of power abuse. In Malawi, President Kamuzu Banda behaves as if the nation is his personal property, his house in which he is the father. His sole excuse for not marrying is that since he is the father of all, who could he marry from among his children? The nation of voters and adults has been reduced to a small homestead. As a result, the President cannot be criticised. Which child in an African homestead can stand up to the father and criticise him for not running the affairs of the family properly?
Distortion upon distortion. Even in my own country. I hear people singing “vaMugabe ndibaba” (President Mugabe is our father), and I cringe with fear. as far as I know, President Mugabe is a politician whom the nation has entrusted with the national throne. He is not my father. Neither is he father of the nation. Once again, in an attempt to personalise state power, the people have been denied the right to quiz the president should the need arise.
Talk of names and their abuse. “Father Zimbabwe,” “The Ngwazi,” “Seseko,” “Jongwe” (cockerel),” “The Wise One,” “The Dear Leader.” Names which have become part of the paraphernalia of power. How does a poor citizen challenge the mistaken ideas of a leader who is daily presented with such new tiles as “The Wise one,” “The One Whose Power Comes From God,” “The Saviour of the Land?” Where do all these mysterious titles come from? Who bestows them?
When the history of the making of African dictators is written properly someone will elect the theme of praise-singers and sycophants and portray their proper role in the destruction of Africa’s democratic tradition. The editors of government-run newspapers, television and radio stations, they are among the worst enemies of people participation in Africa. They weaken the people, making them sheepish followers and admirers of this new god, portrayed daily as infallible and indispensable.
There are biographers, too, who listen to the imagined tales of “this courageous boy, who in his early life used to fight bigger boys in the bush as they herded cattle.” They are the creators of myths which are drummed into the national consciousness until every voter, every citizen is reduced to a burdensome object. Once we are objects, we are expected to kneel when the President passes by. I recall the Malawian ambassador to Zimbabwe kneeling on the hard tarmac to bid farewell to His Excellency the Ngwazi Life President Doctor Hastings Kamuzu Banda.
The work of the praise-singers and sycophants, sometimes called “advisors” even if they have not advised anybody for 12 years, is to transform African leaders from family heads to demi-gods. A Zimbabwean Member of Parliament was not ashamed to call President Mugabe Jesus Christ. The President did not publicly censure the Honourable member. Surely a good democrat should ensure that he erases mistaken notions about his leadership.
Slightly more than a year ago Zimbabwe went through presidential and parliamentary elections. I was particularly interested in following the language of our political leaders as they sought to persuade the electorate to vote for them. The verbal battles ranged from threats of war to mere vulgarity, an exchange of bitter insults instead of words of persuasion. The people took note and refused to turn up at the election booths. Only just over half the voters turned up, virtually a national boycott.
Most African peoples are boycotted by their leaders. They know that even if they remain at home and refuse to vote, the ruling party will score its 99 percent turnout anyway. So why bother?
Maybe I should go to the elected leaders themselves, the parliamentarians, the gentlemen and ladies who are happy to legislate a wage freeze today and tomorrow legislate massive increases in their own salaries, including that of the President. On such issues, there is hardly any debate, or any mention of the economy’s dire straits.
I have not had much experience of African parliaments elsewhere. I will talk about what I know. I have maintained, over the years, that vendors should go to the Zimbabwean Parliament and sell pillows. Why not, when our Members of Parliament are shown on national television fast asleep? The Zimbabwean Parliament of 150 can hardly boast more than 10 spokes persons for the electorate. The others simply wait for the customary response to the presidential address, pour out their bits of flattery and “congratulations” and go to sleep for the rest of the Parliamentary session.
One would like to think that the elected representatives of the people of Zimbabwe would be wise men and women, people who think about national issues, people who consult their electorate and are able to interpret national issues to the “illiterate ” whom they “persuaded” to vote for them. Not so. The major criterion is loyalty to the party meaning to the leadership not to the people. Those who insist on being loyal to the people who elected them know their fate, in Zimbabwe, in Kenya, in Malawi, in Cameroon, in Nigeria, everywhere on the African continent.
Power, like a desolating pestilence, rages in Africa and the people remain victims. No one talks to them about their fate, their destiny. In Africa, the leaders eat on your behalf, leaving you frail, powerlessly speculating on your own distant destiny. Talk of democracy and a motorcade will tell you who is in charge.
The paraphernalia of power works miracles. Motorcades with 50 outriders and the latest Mercs; titles, medals without any wars fought. Do they give themselves medals for defeating their own people, subduing them into the position of the powerless victims? Marshal Mobutu, General Babangida. I wonder which war the Marshal ever marshalled except the war to empty Zaire’s national coffers, leaving the people poor and helpless.
Nurrudin Farah, the exiled Somali novelist, once asked : “How does it feel to buy with a banknote on which is printed your picture?”
African presidents normally insist on their faces appearing on banknotes and women’s dresses. And there are other monuments too: buildings, roads, stadia and songs – all the glory of the god-given leader. As for humility, only history will tell.
There will be a Moi University, a Robert Gabriel Mugabe Road, a Kenneth Kaunda this or that, a Jomo Kenyatta International Airport and many other items of this paraphernalia of power. I always ask myself why there is no John Major University or George Bush Stadium? This has to do with memory, the will to be remembered, but by force, without necessarily endearing themselves to the people they lead.
Even illiterate African leaders make themselves Chancellors of Universities. Every aspect of society needs to be conquered. They too, must become patrons of everything which matters. This is the dream of power, total and undisputed power.
Democracy in Africa is in tatters. What we have are semblances of it in which civic society has been destroyed by a monolithic perspective of national affairs. African leaders have taken away all freedoms from the people, including the freedom to dream our own dreams and implement them. It is they who define the national patriot and the national infidel, not the people.
I may sound grossly cynical, especially now that Frederick Chiluba has been elected in a fairly free election in Zambia. We have yet to see if he will resist the lure of power and its capacity to destroy people’s participation in determining their own destiny. It is gratifying to note that he has refused all those massive titles of “His Excellency or Mr Chancellor” of all universities in Zambia.
African democracy has partly been destroyed by the “secret service”, which intimidates everybody out of their wits. In Zimbabwe, for example, people fear “disappearance,” or “men in suits and dark glasses.” They are there in pubs, at public gatherings, in places of entertainment. I remember one soccer fan being hustled out of the stadium for having wondered openly how much it cost the nation for the President Canaan Banana to bring a whole motorcade to watch a soccer match. Those were the people from “The President’s Office.”
In response, the people are subdued into silence, a form of death. It is an anguished silence in which flames of rumour engulf the national consciousness, making the national newspapers mere tokens of habit reading. The other enemy of democracy on the African continent is the abuse of women and youths. Party job descriptions include the intimidation of opponents and critics either by violently assaulting them, or by organising senseless demonstrations against them, or even plundering their homes until it becomes impossible for them to live in the suburb of their choice. Charred remains of human bodies, burnt houses, humiliated opposition politicians paraded on television in order to confess they have now seen the light and returned to the fold, are common monuments to Africa’s democratic endeavours.
Democracy has to do with dialogue that broadens citizens’ perspectives of themselves as they shape their own destiny. I would like to see an African leader sitting under a tree, engaging peasants and farmers in discussion about the national economy. I would like to see an African leader stopped in the streets by badly paid workers and challenged about the price of bread and butter. In other words, leaders must be real people, not demigods.
But what I do see now? African leaders insisting on organising stale rallies where they tell the people the same thing over and over again. A rally is an insult in which one person assumes they have all the wisdom, so would like to tell it to the masses.
We have the leaders we deserve. When independence came, we gave our whole lives to them until it was difficult for them to remain human beings. After allowing the politicians to ride on our backs, our problem is how to force them to dismount, as Zimbabwean politician Eddison Zvobgo found himself saying. We adore power like a shrine instead of pitying the leaders for the many insurmountable burdens they carry.
Until the leaders dismount, we shall not experience democracy. African people will replace one form of dictatorship with another, putting violent dictators where there had been weeping dictators. Without a strong civic society, interest groups and institutions, Africa will continue to look to “governments” for the aspirations and dreams of small communities. National dreams are made of the small, apparently insignificant, dreams of a small community, an individual, a group.
Africa will experience democracy only when African leaders desist from the pursuit of, as Vaclav Havel put it… “the path of inner decay for the sake of outward appearances; of deadening life for the sake of increasing uniformity; or deepening the spiritual and moral crisis of our society and carelessly degrading human dignity for the puny sake of protecting … power”.
This article by local poet novelist, Chenjerai Hove, is reproduced from Index on Censorship.